18 February 2000

Irish butcher backs UK beef in Belgium

British beef is making a

comeback in Belgium,thanks

to the efforts of an Irishman.

Philip Clarke reports

CATHAL OSHEA – a long-established family butcher from Tipperary – opened his first shop in Brussels two years ago.

"Until 1996, British beef – and Scotch beef in particular – was doing really well over here," he says. "Its quality and image were second to none. But the export ban left a void and that has been filled by the Irish."

Mr OSheas arrival in Brussels followed a chance meeting with a Belgian businessman in Ireland, "over for the fox hunting".

"He invited me back to Belgium to work with his horses, and while I was over here I saw all the Irish pubs, the ex-pat Irish and British communities and thought there was an opportunity."

Setting up shop in Rue le Titian, just around the corner from the Commission, the initial focus was on Irish produce – Irish beef, Irish lamb and Irish poultry.

But, since the lifting of the export ban last August, he has also started a steady trade in British beef. "Your product is superb," he says. "The packaging, the presentation, the taste."

Volumes are still relatively small – perhaps 100kg a week compared with 1.5 tonnes of Irish beef.

But Mr OShea is the first to offer British beef over the counter, (in addition to a growing catering trade), and makes no attempt to conceal its identity. Union Jacks and Scottish tartan are as much in evidence as Irish shamrocks in his shop.

He is not shy on price either, passing on the full £2.50/kg premium over Irish he has to pay for supplies from the UKs only two certified suppliers.

&#42 Very discerning

"My customers are very discerning and are prepared to pay more for the best," says Mr OShea. Most sales are to English and Scottish ex-pats, though other locals are also starting to buy British. "I even sold some English fillet to a Frenchman at Christmas. Im not sure if he came back for more, but certainly we had no complaints."

Re-introducing British beef has also had a knock-on effect on supplies from home.

"Irish exporters were stretched to fill the gap left by the Brits and a certain amount of Friesian-type beef was finding its way onto the market," says Mr OShea. "Ive let it be known they are going to have to keep a closer eye on quality now the Scots and English are back, though judging by my latest delivery, theyve already taken note."

UK beef is ok in Brussels and sales are brisk at the shop in Rue le Titian.

Cathal OSheas customers are prepared to pay for the best beef.